This is my countdown of the greatest Nebraska Cornhuskers to wear each jersey number, 1-99. For background on the project, click here. We’re going to start at #99 and work our way down to #1. For each number, I’ll list the best player to wear that number, some of the other memorable Huskers to don that jersey, as well as a personal favorite of mine.
This is it. The final ten*. The single digit club is made up of quarterbacks (including a Heisman Trophy winner), cornerbacks, I-Backs, and a miscellaneous blend of wingbacks, receivers, and kickers.
*Actually, there are only nine. My research could not uncover any Nebraska football player who ever wore the number 0 or 00.
And more than probably any other group in the countdown, 9 – 1 contains guys who despite solid (if not outstanding) careers, were never fully embraced by Husker fans, cautionary tales, and talk of a curse.
Best Player: Steve Taylor, Quarterback, 1985 – 1988
Other notables: Gary Russell
Personal Favorite: Taylor
Comments: Throughout the countdown, we’ve talked about players who were ahead of their time. Guys who could be lifted out of their era and land successfully in today’s game. Steve Taylor is one of those guys.
Taylor had good speed and elusive moves as a runner (over 2,000 career rush yards and a then single game record 157 yards against Utah State in 1987). But Taylor does not always receive enough credit as a passer. Certainly, many remember his impressive line against #3 UCLA (10-15, 217 yards, five touchdowns). But having been away from an option offense for more than ten years, can we really appreciate what a five passing touchdown day would have looked like in Osborne’s ground offense?
In case you thought the UCLA game was a fluke, Taylor added a four TD performance against Mizzou in the same season, which helped him earn All America honors. I’d love to see what somebody with Taylor’s skill set would look like in one of today’s spread offenses.
Best Player: Tyrone Williams, Cornerback, 1993 – 1995
Other notables: Ameer Abdullah, Tyrone Byrd
Personal Favorite: Ameer Abdullah, I-Back, 2011 – 2014
Comments: Tyrone Williams was an excellent cover corner. Strong and fast, he matched up against some excellent receivers during his NU career and usually came out on top. He received honors after each of his three seasons at NU: Big 8 Defensive Newcomer in 1993 and All Big 8 in 1994 and 1995. He may not be in the first tier of great Husker cornerbacks, but he’s definitely in the next group.
Ameer Abdullah is everything you could want in a college running back. Breakaway speed, raw power, good vision and agility, and a warrior-like toughness to play through injuries. When Abdullah arrived on campus he was not as highly regarded as fellow recruits Aaron Green and Braylon Heard. Yet, Abdullah is poised to finish his Husker career near the top of the all-time rushing chart. Off the field, Abdullah is a bright kid who understands the importance of education. His statement announcing his decision to come back for his senior season should be required reading for all student athletes.
Best Player: Eric Crouch, Quarterback, 1998 – 2001
Other notables: Scott Frost, Demorrio Williams
Personal Favorite: Crouch
Comments: Nebraska’s most recent Heisman Trophy winner is one of the most electrifying athletes to ever play at Nebraska. Sprinter fast, Crouch was a threat to score from anywhere on the field. He carried the 2001 team to the National Championship game (Seriously. Crouch almost has as many rushing yards at team leader Dahrran Diedrick and his two best receivers were Wilson Thomas and Tracey Wistrom. Not exactly Rozier and Fryar – or even Phillips and Muhammad).
One of the themes within this set of numbers is talented players who were never fully embraced by Husker fans. The number 7 has two primary examples in Crouch and Scott Frost. The primary reason, in my opinion, was a perceived lack of loyalty to the program. Frost famously chose Stanford and Bill Walsh over Nebraska out of high school, before coming home. Crouch had to be convinced to return to campus during a heated QB controversy with Bobby Newcombe. Personally, I think these reasons are stupid. I’d wager at least a third of the guys in this countdown have been homesick, changed their mind, or reacted poorly to disappointing news. I care more about their on-field production (a National Championship for Frost and a Heisman for Crouch) than a harmless decisions made by a teenager.
Best Player: Keith Jones, I-Back, 1984 – 1987
Other notables: Sammy Sims
Personal Favorite: Darin Erstad, Punter, 1994
Comments: The original “End Zone” Jones, Keith was a very successful back at Nebraska. An injury to Doug DuBose made him a starter his junior season, and he never looked back, leading the Big 8 with 830 yards and 14 touchdowns en route to All Big 8 honors. The speedy I-Back, another product of the Omaha Central pipeline, had a big encore as a senior. He put up 1,232 yards and another 13 TDs, picking up all conference honors again. Jones left NU third on the all-time rushing list.
I remember hearing that Darin Erstad was going to join the football team as a punter. At the time, I thought it was odd that the best baseball player at Nebraska was going to be a punter and not a “skill” player, but Erstad proved quite skilled. He averaged over 42 yards a kick, made some PATs, and a couple of field goals. I wholeheartedly believe he does not receive nearly enough recognition for his role in the 1995 Orange Bowl. But let’s be honest, he’s on this list for one reason: Double Extra Point!
Best Player: DeJuan Groce, Cornerback, 1999 – 2002
Other notables: None
Personal Favorite: Jammal Lord, Quarterback, 2000 – 2003
Comments: DeJuan Groce was a good cornerback. Not great – or at least not as great as some of the others on this list – but good enough to be a multi-year starter and second team All Big XII selection as a senior. But make no mistake, DeJuan Groce is not on this list for his work in the secondary. Groce is here because he is one of the best return men in school history, trailing only Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers in punt return yards and touchdowns. In his senior year, Groce racked up a school record 732 yards on punt returns and scored four touchdowns, including two against Troy State. For his efforts as a return man, Groce was named All Big XII and All America as a return specialist.
I liked Jammal Lord. I thought he was a talented athlete who made a pretty decent quarterback. Unfortunately, he is another player whose career is not fully appreciated by Husker fans. Why? Lord had two big strikes against him: 1) he followed a Heisman Trophy winner, and 2) he was the quarterback of the 2002 team that broke the 9-win streak. Like many Husker QBs in the Osborne/Solich era, Lord was definitely more of a runner (1,412 yards rushing in 2002) than a passer (48% career passer, more interceptions than touchdowns). Lord racked up big numbers (234 rushing yards against Texas), but did not always make the play in crunch time (he threw an interception that ended that Texas game). Regardless, I believe that had he been surrounded with better talent, Lord would be remembered more fondly.
Best Player: Lavonte David, Linebacker, 2010 – 2011
Other notables: Larry Asante, Troy Dumas, Tim Jackson
Personal Favorite: David
Comments: One of the best linebackers in school history, Lavonte David is on the short list with Mike Rozier for the best Junior College transfer in school history. David appeared to be as fast going sideline to sideline as he was going straight ahead. Combine that with his ability to detect plays before anybody else, and it is no wonder he racked up so many tackles in his two year career. As a junior, he set a single season record with 152 tackles. He followed that with 133 more as a senior. To put that in perspective, Lavonte David played in 27 games as a Blackshirt. In 14 of those games, he recorded ten or more tackles.
David racked up the honors in his two years. Big XII Defensive Player of the Year, Big XII Defensive Newcomer of the Year, All Big XII, All Big 10, Big 10 Linebacker of the Year, All-American, and finalist for the Butkus, Lott, and Bednarik Trophies.
In my years of watching Nebraska football, I’ve seen some outstanding linebackers. Barrett Ruud. Ed Stewart. Demorrio Williams. Trev Alberts. Terrell Farley. But I’m not sure if any of them were better than David. He always seemed to either make the tackle, or be within 5 yards of the ball carrier. And he had a knack for making a big play when Nebraska needed it the most – especially his stop, strip, and recovery of Braxton Miller in the 2011 Ohio State game.
Best Player: Keyuo Craver, Cornerback, 1998 – 2001
Other notables: Matt Davison, Tyrone Legette, Taylor Martinez, Daimion Stafford, Dean Sukup
Personal Favorite: Taylor Martinez, Quarterback, 2009 – 2013
Comments: Keyuo Craver was another terrific cornerback from an era of great secondary players. Craver wasn’t especially big (he was listed at 5’11”, 190 pounds), but he was fast, athletic, and always around the ball. He ended his career second all time in pass breakups and first in career tackles among cornerbacks. Craver was also a special teams standout, blocking four kicks and scoring two touchdowns.
As a senior, Craver was All Big XII, All-America, and was a semi-finalist for several national awards.
Ah Taylor Martinez. Has there been a more polarizing player in Nebraska history? The freshman phenom who burst onto the scene with long touchdown runs was a sight to behold. Then injuries hit, and he was arguably never the same. His image probably took a bigger beating than his body, as he took heat for calling his dad from the locker room during a game, being careless with the football, body language that made him appear aloof, and his interesting relationship with the local media. And yet, he holds darn near every record that a NU quarterback can hold – including some involving turnovers. He was a player who could make you say “Oh my God!” for both good and bad reasons.
There will probably never be another T-Magic. While I’m guessing that’s okay for many fans, I think it is a little sad too.
Best Player: Jeff Krejci, Safety, 1978 – 1981
Other notables: None
Personal Favorite: T.J. Hollowell, Linebacker, 2001 – 2003
Comments: Jeff Krejci is poster child for the Nebraska walk-on program. A Nebraska kid from a small town (Schuyler), he walked on to Nebraska in 1978, and was buried on the depth chart. Through hard work and perseverance, he worked his way up and saw enough playing time to earn a couple of varsity letters. As a senior, he became a full time starter at safety and was good enough to be named All Big 8, and earn a shot at the NFL. A Nebraska football history site named Krejci to its All Time Walk-On Team.
I’ll admit that Hollowell is a bit of stretch as a personal favorite. That is no disrespect to T.J., who was a part of one of Nebraska’s greatest linebacking trios (Hollowell, Barrett Ruud, and Demorrio Williams). But when I think of Hollowell, I remember him more as a #17 (his number for his first two years in Lincoln) than a #2, but my other options for the duece were limited. Regardless, T.J. was a good player whose career I enjoyed watching.
Number 2 is littered with guys who came in with hype but never made a significant impact: Major Culbert, Mike Demps, Aaron Green, Lazarri Middleton, Patrick Witt, just to name a few.
Best Player: Lawrence Phillips, I-Back, 1993 – 1995
Other notables: Dale Klein
Personal Favorite: Phillips
Comments: Lawrence Phillips stands alone in Husker history. Many have said he is the best I-Back to ever play at Nebraska – even ahead of Heisman winner Mike Rozier. But he also stands alone as the person who did the most damage to Nebraska’s reputation. Let’s start by focusing on his on-field accomplishments.
Phillips had a strong freshman year, contributing in a number of games. But 1994, his sophomore season, was something special. With Tommie Frazier and Brook Berringer out with injuries, everybody knew L.P. was Nebraska’s biggest threat. Playing at #16 Kansas State, with walk-on Matt Turman at QB, Phillips had 31 carries for 126 yards and a touchdown – all while nursing a thumb injury. In 1994, he racked up 11 straight 100 yard games, was All Big 8, and finished 8th in the Heisman voting. His 1995 season got off to an even better start: 359 yards on 34 carries (10.5 yard average) with seven touchdowns in two games.
But when you talk about Lawrence Phillips, you have to talk about his off the field issues. The arrest. The suspension. The impact his reinstatement had on Osborne and the rest of the program. His additional legal issues in the NFL and beyond. Bernie Goldberg digging for dirt and painting Nebraska as a “win at all costs” school. We can debate if Nebraska has ever gotten past the damage Phillips did to the program’s reputation. I think they have, only because the losing in the Solich and Callahan years became a bigger story. But you know that should a Husker ever be arrested for violence against a woman, the name Lawrence Phillips will be brought up.
I have watched every Nebraska I-Back since the early 80s, and there have been some greats: Rozier, Ahman, Helu, Abdullah, Keith and Calvin Jones, and so many more. And yet, I truly believe the greatest back I have ever watched – regardless of team – is Lawrence Phillips. I also have no doubt that had the night of September 9, 1995 gone differently, L.P. would have won the Heisman Trophy over Tommie Frazier and Eddie George.
Also, no discussion of the #1 jersey at Nebraska would be complete without mentioning this brilliant (and extremely well-researched) piece where Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World-Herald explores the curse of the #1 jersey.
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(Author’s note: Wondering why there is a random letter in parentheses in the title of this post? Not sure how this post corresponds to the daily letter in the April A to Z Challenge? Like clicking on links? These questions are all answered here.)